Like most of us, Chicagoan Tram Nguyen and her best friend, Lucy Madison, authors of food blog Pen & Palate, look back at their 20s as a decade of twists and turns. But the pals found at least two constants among the chaos: their friendship and food. Now in their early 30s, the two recount how they navigated their lives, loves and careers in the years after college, in a new book named after their blog.
Part memoir, part cookbook, “Pen & Palate” (Grand Central Life & Style, $26) is a collection of personal essays by Madison (who lives in New York) and Nguyen (in Chicago), anchored by recipes and illustrations by Nguyen. The book has echoes of Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn” and the works of authors like Ruth Reichl and M.F.K. Fisher. We talked to Nguyen and Madison about their book, and their mishaps. This is an edited transcript.
Q: What was your impetus for starting the blog Pen & Palate?
Madison: We were writing to each other a lot, and then we started the blog for fun. At that point, I hadn’t written about food before, but I thought the recipes were a great hook into the stories. It was just a more natural way to approaching the recipe and the food. Because we weren’t expecting people to read it, I thought of my audience as Tram.
Q: Lots of blogs are now being run like businesses: Pinterest pages, sponsored posts, Instagram takeovers and media kits. Pen & Palate doesn’t do any of that.
Nguyen: We never considered audience building. Honestly, we were just writing for each other. We didn’t think anyone would read it. Once, someone told me, “I tried this recipe on your site and loved it,” and I was surprised. “Really?!”
Q: A big thing I noticed is the book, unlike other cookbooks, doesn’t feature any photographs of gorgeously composed food. Neither does your blog.
Madison: People responded well to Tram’s illustrations and that it was so different from everything out there. Those blogs that do focus on photography are so beautiful and special, but we do something so different. We wanted something we could read. When we found people responding to that — my neighbors told me they discovered the blog — it was so terrifying! I remember feeling like, it’s not just my mom and it’s not just Tram. Personally, I feel like I have to turn the blinders on and just write. I’m not super-over-share-y, but here I am on the blog being super-personal.
Nguyen: The illustrations weren’t much of a choice; it was what felt natural. I like to infuse a little humor in my work, whether it’s writing or illustration. It gives it a little more personality and feels more authentic. In the book, I’ve used gouache paints in a hybrid of digital painting and watercolor collage. I think it’s interesting to have that tension of organic and geometric shapes.
Q: Your stories are really revealing, but your recipes at the end of each chapter are just as conversational. For instance, Tram, you recognize that some people making your cream puff recipe aren’t going to want to cut a tiny hole in the bottom of each puff to pipe in the cream, so you wrote: “If this is too fussy for you, simply slice the tops off and pipe the layers like a sandwich.”
Nguyen: On a practical level, we wanted the recipes to be easy to follow. We wanted them to read like you’re talking to your friends on the phone. In the Ottolenghi cookbook, there was an aside (for roasted goose) that told you to line your stove with foil to protect it from splattering fat. You don’t often see things like that, taking into account practical things like not wanting to dirty up too many dishes.
Q: Now that you’ve written the blog for a few years and now the book, how would you rank yourself in the kitchen?
Nguyen: I definitely consider myself a home cook.
Madison: Me, too. I freelance at a food magazine [Food & Wine], and I’m in awe of all these people I work with who have this wealth of knowledge and went to school for it. I’ll always consider myself a home cook.
Q: Your hilarious blog post, “How to Start a Grease Fire,” was rewritten as a chapter in the book but with a totally different take. A little more humble but no less funny.
Madison: I updated it to go with the tone of the book and to revisit the mistake. I love the mistakes; they make stories. I feel like a story is much less fun when it’s perfect. I had never gotten around to learning about frying, since I’d never before had a kitchen where it was a good idea to fry. So the fire happened, and I was just terrified to try again. Then I flew out to Chicago, and Tram and I did it together. Now, I’m much more confident. That said, I have always been pretty cavalier about mistakes. The thing about grease fires is that one mistake can actually be dangerous.
Q: How much of the blog made it into the new book?
Madison: Most of the book is original, with some adaptations and retellings of stories we may have mentioned on the blog.
Nguyen: If it was a story we’ve told before, we expanded upon it, gave more details.
Q: Since you both learned your way around the kitchen through trial and error, do you have any tips for people who may be inspired by your experience of just diving in and experimenting?
Nguyen: I think when you’re trying new recipes, consider the source. A lot of recipes say they’re simple or very minimalist, but that’s because they assume you know more than you do. I think if you’re starting out, read a lot of reviews of the recipes. How have people who have tried the recipe responded or tweaked it?
Madison: At one point, Tram said I should get Cooks Illustrated. I never feel like I’m in safer hands than when I have a book that is super-tested. I think learning the basics from Food Lab or Cooks Illustrated or Epicurious, these are key. I tailor my recipes to their instructions.
Nguyen: If you do make mistakes, that’s how you learn for next time.
Q: What are you cooking right now?
Madison: Leading up to getting married and being pregnant, I discovered I really like to bake. I find it very relaxing. I’ve been baking a lot in the last six months. I’ve felt less inclined to go out, so I bake when I’m listening to music. One thing I eat a lot of now is chocolate chip cookies. It’s very cliché, but something about the last six months of pregnancy, I’ve had to have chocolate chip cookies every day.
Nguyen: In recent years I’ve become more confident in my abilities, so I have been trying to re-create the dishes of my Vietnamese childhood. I never thought it was something I could possibly do. I’ve been slowly tackling these projects. [One thing that’s great about the blog is that] there’s no pressure. If I’m obsessed with dumplings, I can just make some and get to [writing about] it when I feel like it. It’s nice to have something just for you, with no constraints, so you can be as creative as you want.